A Syrian refugee holds her child as she begs on the streets of Beirut.
A Syrian refugee holds her child as she begs on the streets of Beirut. Hassan Ammar/AP

To make a good life in a new city, recent research stresses that refugees must connect with those outside their national or ethnic group.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is currently experiencing the highest level of displacement on record: 65.6 million people have been forced from their homes, with nearly 22.5 million of them refugees. A significant share of them seek shelter in cities, particularly in the Global South.

This urban demographic is on the rise, and faces particular challenges. While refugees in camps receive direct assistance from domestic and international aid organizations, those in cities are left to fend for themselves. They must secure their own food, shelter, and employment, often in areas where services are lacking even for the host population. They habitually go days without a meal and face insecure housing.

Ammar Malik, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that refugees stay in host countries for, on average, 10 years. (Some may ultimately remain, while others will return home or move to another country.) “Regardless,” he says, “they’re going to be there a long time, so it’s imperative that they’re able to become part of the community, both economically and socially.”

Malik and a group of Urban Institute researchers set out to understand the role that social networks play in helping urban refugees settle in host countries. They conducted three dozen interviews and surveyed 1,000 households in each of three cities with large refugee populations: Gazientep, Turkey (Syrian and Iraqi refugees); Nairobi, Kenya (Somali and Congolese refugees); and Peshawar, Pakistan (Afghan refugees). The researchers recently published a brief touching on all three cases. A detailed report on the Peshawar research is also available, while those on Gazientep and Nairobi are forthcoming

“The cases are very different,” says Malik, “but the refugees are facing the same essential problems.” Malik and his colleagues found a number of common trends. Though urban refugees live in dense neighborhoods, they are socially isolated and excluded, often because host communities feel economically threatened. “Regardless of refugees’ legal status and whether or not they have work permits,” says Malik, “living in cities gives them income-generating opportunities. But they’re also coming in close contact with host communities that sometimes feel [refugees are] taking their jobs.”

Refugees usually engage with people similar to them, such as family members and ethnic or national connections, particularly when they first arrive. These individuals or groups mainly help by giving advice about the new city and assisting with housing, rather than providing direct financial help. Because of refugees’ exclusion from host communities, these “in-group” networks often continue to serve as main points of contact. Further, apart from Kenyan religious organizations, the refugees Malik and his colleagues canvassed participate in almost no formal groups geared toward refugees, such as cultural or economic associations.

The study thus shows that urban refugees are largely living in isolation, which the researchers note is a major obstacle to securing long-term employment and financial stability, as well as to feeling more socially at ease. This isolation is much more extreme for women than for men—so much so that the researchers suggest that further qualitative study is needed to understand the discrepancy.

The research complicates the idea that social networks are always beneficial. While the in-group networks may be helpful at first, they can ultimately hinder refugees from branching out and making the connections that help them become productive members of the host society. In the face of anti-refugee sentiment in many cities across the globe, Malik and his co-authors stress that self-reliant refugees generate economic benefits to host communities, such as through a larger consumer base and greater inflows of public investment, including donor funding.

However, the authors recommend that domestic and international aid organizations rethink some of this funding, such as bestowing large amounts of resources on formal cultural or economic organizations. These outfits don’t appear to attract many refugees, and even when they do they can create enclaves that keep refugees only socializing with each other.

Rather, Malik and his colleagues suggest that humanitarian organizations provide immediate, basic assistance to refugees upon arrival, but then implement a more long-term strategy to integrate them—including enhancing efforts to ensure the displaced have the right to work; helping to resettle refugees throughout cities rather than in immigrant enclaves; and facilitating language acquisition. (This is particularly true for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Gazientep, as they speak Arabic rather than Turkish; in the other two cases, the languages spoken by hosts and refugees are more similar and thus more easily understood.)

Malik also calls for small, local initiatives that foster social connections between refugees and host communities. Many refugees are children, so making connections among young people can provide an entry point. “Simple things like soccer leagues where refugee children and host community children interact, talk, and become friends can help bridge the gap,” he says.

“Local organizations, such as libraries, can put together events like book talks, art exhibits, and poetry contests—anything to bring the different communities together,” Malik adds. “We need bottom-up approaches, because those work best.”

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